Saturday, May 11, 2013

Defining Your Terms - Beyond the Binary

I've written before concerning the importance of a common language when discussing tabletop roleplaying games. While I still believe such a thing would be useful, I don't expect that an agreement on terms is likely nor needed. Until formal academic studies of RPG practice and culture are commonplace, no consistent vernacular will be established. Even then it will be, as all language, an evolving and fluid lexicon. 'Til that glorious golden day in the future, all of us nerds are going to have to define our terms. Sans that, no real communication is possible. Unfortunately there's something that gets in the way of doing so with any actual depth: Binary Thinking.

Binary Thinking, Either/Or, Us vs Them.

A plague upon the Western World! A plague I say!

Binary thinking is considering an issue as consisting of only either A or B. You are either good, or you are evil; you are on our side, or you are the enemy; you either like Star Trek, or you like Star Wars; you're either playing a realistic game or a cinematic game. Not only does binary thought ignore the rich spectrum in between extremes, it also carries the implication that one state is better than the other (sometimes explicitly so). Now, there are certain qualities that are binary by nature: clockwise/counterclockwise, north/south, east/west,  + / -, and even good/bad; however, with few exceptions there are varying degrees within these binary opposites.

Taking the example of Good/Bad, I find that there is a definite line between the two ideas, a line that should not be crossed. Yet there is a world of difference between a mistake made during a lapse in judgement (still a bad decision) and a willfully malicious action (what I consider actual evil). You can make a decision that benefits you and harms no one else (good) while still the possibility of a better decision on your part exists (one yielding more benefit).* It's also quite possible to make a decision that has both good and bad consequences. Whereas binary thought carries the implication that states of being are always mutually exclusive.

The short of it is that dividing the world into binary opposites is inherently limiting, of little to no use, and very far removed from actuality.

What then does this philosophical dribble have to do with RPGs?

My Terms:

Verisimilar & Verisimilitude - When a particular mechanic or setting element elegantly evokes a sense of reality, demonstrating a reasonably authentic representation of real-world possibilities. I find this to be a more suitable and less a loaded word than "Realism."
     Example: A game that has realistic healing rates and simple but apt mechanics vis-à-vis disease could be said to be "medically verisimilar" or "have a  a simple sort of medical verisimilitude" if you prefer more Thoreau-esque prose.  

Exaggerated & Exaggeration - When a particular mechanic or setting element stretches something beyond its normal capacity, aka "over-the-top", "larger-than-life".  The dividing line between exaggeration & fantasy (see below) is not entirely clear. Exaggeration is when something that could or might happen is pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy. Fantasy, when something that can't happen does. An action hero diving thirty feet from an exploding helicopter and getting up without serious injury is exaggeration. A fire-breathing, flying dragon casting magic missile is fantasy.
     Example: A pulp-style game in which a mustachioed boxer might be capable of punching out a grizzly bear has "a fun and very exaggerated combat system."

Fantastical & Fantasy - When something that cannot happen does. Magic, dragons, orcish shamans, flying monkeys, extraplanar creatures, superheroes, etc. are all fantastical elements.  
     Example: The idea that "bikini maile" protects female warriors at all is "pure fantasy."

It should be noted, I am by no means attempting to supplement binaries with a trinary. These qualities are not the be all and end all of RPG theory. I do, however, find them to be at the heart of many discussions and arguments as to the nature of the games we play.

A pair of quick examples of these terms in use to describe actual RPG systems.

A short one:

Savage Worlds provides a reasonably quick, oddly rules-heavy game of cinematic, action-hero-style exaggeration.

A long one:

The venerable and thoroughly gonzo Rifts setting & system provides a clunky but playable and certainly interesting game. It's staggeringly fantastical setting includes ridiculously exaggerated super-science and dozens (hundreds?) of different takes on magic/psychics/magic-tech/psy-tech/mutants/cthulhu-esque-beings/etc.
Oddly, Rifts adopts strict verisimilar stances on certain things, seemingly at random. (Lasers are quiet, super-duper-rail-guns require pylon-bracings, the skill system in general attempts verisimilitude via complexity.) Then it exaggerates  and dismisses with fantasy many other aspects ( Literally ANYTHING can pop in through the rifts. "You wanna be a dragon? Cool. You're a baby dragon. You can cast spells and be bad-ass but you're really naive. Got it?")  In Rifts, if you can imagine it, there's probably a rule for it: expansive hardly conveys the spread of potentiality here.
All in all, it's a bipolar, rules-heavy, weird monstrosity, but I've never not had fun playing it.

Viewing settings and systems through these lenses has been a helpful tool for me to square away what I do and don't enjoy about gaming. As always, Your Mileage May Vary**.

* I am not about to get into an argument concerning morality on this blog. If you do happen to be interested in a philosophical discussion, you will find my Google+ contact info on the righthand menu (or bottom of the page if you're looking at the mobile version). I, however, make no guarantee I'll be available or in the mood for such a discussion.

** And if it does, I'd love to hear about it. Comments are more than welcome!